Ernest Truex: from “Child Wonder” to “Kick the Can”

I only became aware of stage and screen actor Ernest Truex (1889-1973) recently, when I learned that he was one of the colony of well-known showpeople who lived in Great Neck during the 1920s. At that time, Truex was a Broadway star who had been in some silent films. He went on to supporting parts in talkies and television through the 1960s. If you don’t recognize the name, you almost certainly have seen some of his work.

Truex was the son of a Kansas City doctor who received childhood acting lessons from a patient as barter for medical care. When he was nine, his parents divorced. By that time he was already touring vaudeville and stock companies as a “Child Wonder” playing roles from Shakespeare. In 1908 he debuted on Broadway in a play called Wildfire which starred Lillian Russell. (In 1940, he would play Russell’s father in the famous bio-pic starring Alice Faye). Truex was to appear on Broadway in nearly four dozen shows, including numerous David Belasco plays, as well as the first stage adaptation of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1910), the hit musical Very Good, Eddie (1915, Truex was the lead), Six Cylinder Love (1921), and George Washington Slept Here (1940). In 1923 he starred in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ill-fated 1923 play, The Vegetable, in out of town tryouts in Atlantic City (it didn’t make it to Broadway).

Truex’s first film was Caprice (1913) with Mary Pickford and Owen Moore. His last silent film Six Cylinder Love (1923) was an adaptation of his earlier Broadway hit. Interestingly, when he returned to movies in 1933, it was to star in Whistling in the Dark, also an adaptation of one of his Broadway shows. From 1934 through 1936 Truex starred in his own series of comedy shorts for Educational Pictures. He played Gary Cooper’s sidekick in The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938). In the incredible year of 1940 he was in His Girl Friday (1940), Lillian Russell (1940), and Christmas in July (1940), among several others. As the decade went on his parts got smaller, and with the advent of the ’50s his career was primarily in television.

“Kick the Can”

Truex was especially known for playing mild-mannered husbands and ineffectual bosses in comedies. Truex had regular or recurring roles on Mister Peepers (1952-55), Jamie (1953-54), The Ann Sothern Show (1958-59) and Pete and Gladys (1960). He played the old man in the “Kick the Can” episode of The Twilight Zone. His last professional credit was a 1966 episode of Petticoat Junction.

To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film and classic comedy shorts, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.